Finding Peace in Urban Places

South Mountain sunset - photo by A. Sato

South Mountain sunset – A. Sato

“Listen to the course of being in the world… and bring it to reality as it desires.”

~ Martin Buber

By Aleah Sato

Despite living in Phoenix, a city known for its less-than-environmentally-friendly infrastructure, I cherish South Mountain Park Preserve and am lucky to be so close to one of North America’s largest municipal parks. In fact, it’s humorous to speak about South Mountain as a park because the word park conjures up images that do not apply to South Mountain. For one, it’s the desert … and it is rugged. There are no friendly places to plop down on the ground without first carefully examining each inch for the errant cholla spine or pointy chunk of granite. Despite its lack of lush meadows and ultimate Frisbee lawns, it is, however, grab-your-heart beautiful to those of us with “desert eyes.” Every day the light reflects something new in the shadowy canyons of granite and gneiss. Birdcalls carry on the wind through labyrinths of rock so that the smallest voice echoes larger than life.

Cloudscape and range - image by A. Sato

Cloudscape and range – A. Sato

The suburban community of Ahwatukee on the east and south, the Gila River Indian Community on the west, and Phoenix’s south central neighborhoods on the north surround the preserve. South Mountain Park is actually comprised of 16,000 acres and three ranges: Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe. The mountains have received increased publicity over the past few years as the Arizona Department of Transportation and developers push for a freeway extension that would run along the boundaries of the preserve and through the Gila River community. Considered sacred by the O’odham (Pima), the freeway has been the subject of controversy and the outcome stands to reflect whether this city has evolved ecologically and culturally, or if it is still mired in the Post-War urban model of growth at all costs.

Petroglyph panel - A. Sato

Petroglyph panel – A. Sato

And population growth is precisely what prompts this essay.

This morning I arrived at my favorite trailhead at 5:45am. The air was still cool and slightly damp in the canyon as the sun was just cresting the top of the ridge above me. I began walking the steep incline up to the mouth of Telegraph Pass and was only 5 minutes in when I startled three coyotes scurrying down the wash.  Inca doves exploded from under boulders. Gila woodpeckers called out in their distinctive voice and an onslaught if small, unidentifiable yellow and black caterpillars made navigating the path tricky (I was afraid of squishing them). Everything was waking up or settling in. It was early in the day and I walked along a less popular portion of the park in a state of blissful reverie.

Now, this was all rather lovely and splendid until I reached the first trail crossing. Something was amiss. Here, I experienced “the recreational others.” (Imagine doomsday music.)

With the recent influx of planned community dwellers, the entire perimeter of South Mountain has filled in over the past decade; the area has experienced much more traffic and, typically, in the form of LOUD recreationists. Easy access trailheads, such as Pima and Beverly Canyons, have become very popular for bikers, joggers, fitness walkers, and large groups. And, herein lie the seeds for today’s post about ignoring even the most glaring of distractions.

Fallen saguaro - A. Sato

Fallen saguaro – A. Sato

Because of South Mountain Park’s sheer size, it gives one the impression that peace and solitude can be found… somewhere. Today, I was seeking peace, but the city had its own agenda. Coming up from the lesser known trail, I was assaulted by the noise of two police helicopters (they seem fond of flying through the Pass) and a media helicopter (traffic report), shattering a moment of solitude and heralding the crowds that would soon follow. As I ascended the canyon and cleared a large boulder, I was nearly struck by one cyclist who was busy yelling out to another (quite a distance away), “Hey, dude, I made it up to the lookout in 40 minutes!” To which the other shouted back, “No way, man!” Both statements reverberated down the canyon for what seemed like torturous minutes. And, here they came: the power walkers, the runners, the gadget holders. As the hoards continued to arrive, the already loud conversation grew into a nasty swell.

To get away, I scurried back down to the less popular trails below, scrambled over some large boulders that formed a shelter, and watched a few ravens pick apart a piece of refuse in the wash (while fuming, of course). It was then it hit me: why should I let these distractions damage my peace and create discord? The work of the determined ravens convinced me that I am not paying attention to what matters and am instead fixating on the very aspects of the city to which I wanted reprieve. Do I call this place home? No. I am an interloper, too. Granted, I am not loudly waxing romantic about my new pool or high-fiving my bike buddy at the top of my lungs, but I am still a noisy, large mammal who changes the landscape with my arrival.

Facing West - A. Sato

Facing West – A. Sato

There are arguments for curbing noise pollution, certainly. I don’t deny I believe there is a difference between yelling and walking quietly. But the reality is there is no such thing as perfect quiet, and certainly no urban natural area is primitive enough to feel a sense of solitude. So how do we cope when we need to find some quiet in such a noisy world? How can we find just a little bit of peace amid chaos?

In my morning observations, I have noticed that – like people – there are “shy” species and “bold” species. There are animals that prefer to remain hidden and are so adept at their craft in camouflage that they are rarely spotted. There are also animals that delight in the wanton human that drops food on the trail and will eagerly wait for such a morsel. This diversity and opportunity for observation and lesson integration have created a map to peace of mind and a sense of quiet even when the natural world is rife with noise of the human kind.

Mexican gold poppy - A. Sato

Mexican gold poppy – A. Sato

Here are a few ways I have learned to increase the quality of my urban park or natural area experience while remaining open to whatever comes my way:

1. Observe and laugh

Be prepared to recognize your own limitations and judgments. How do you impact solitude and the natural world, and is it possible to make simple changes to decrease negative impacts? Try not to take your experience more seriously than any other’s. The coyotes were likely less than enthralled to see me in “their” canyon, after all.

2. Adapt

Spring - A. Sato

Spring – A. Sat

The birds of South Mountain Park don’t seem too stressed by the constant sound of airplanes and helicopters overhead. If they can adapt and get on with things, it’s possible to tune out for the morning and be more intentional about what is heard: the sound of the wind through branches, for example.

3. Notice the small

When the world seems overwhelming, practice looking at the tiniest of things around you. Notice the stem of a plant. Notice the patterns formed by lichen on rock, or the way the creek makes its own rhythmic music. Sit down. Take time to observe closely and completely the things that are within a foot or two of your body.

4. Become small

Remember when you were a kid how much fun it was to hide? Find a nice spot and blend in, remain quiet, meditate on what it is to be small. We are, after all, small animals in a pretty big place. The experience can feel uncomfortable at first, but it is a great exercise in realizing that peace can come from realizing one’s finite existence, limited capacity, and tiny scheme in a vast universe.

Being a nature-lover as a city dweller can be frustrating. Even those who don’t consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts can appreciate some time alone for reflection. By practicing these four principles, even a backyard can become an unexplored wilderness for the imagination. The city park can be the conduit to where the wild whispers to you and draws you into a centered, grounded quiet.

Lion Paths: Encounters in the Pinal Mountains

Looking west - Dripping Springs

Dripping Springs Mountains – photo by A.Sato

“Homo sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them.”

― Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

July mornings in the Sonoran Desert have a way of prompting an unplanned exodus. Upon waking, I wander into the yard to find my plants a paltry collapsed mess under the weight of 95-degree nights – when it “cools down” from 115. This is the scene at my home every summer here in Phoenix. The intrepid gardener seeks to balance her love for fresh vegetables with the advantage of native plants and a little bit of luck against the nefarious blaze of the low desert sun.

Pinal Peak - photo by A. Sato

Pinal Peak – photo by A. Sato

Fortunately, most of my summer weekends since moving to Phoenix have been spent in the Pinal Mountains, a 45,760-acre range southwest of the mining town of Globe, Arizona. Once the deer-rich hunting grounds of various bands of Western Apaches, these mountains have a history of conflict fueled by mining interests.  The Pinals, like much of the region, have stories rife with mining claims, battles, and indigenous displacement. A series of violent attempts to overcome the Apache hold on the mineral-rich mountains by the Spanish and Mexican armies began as early as the mid-1700s and continued through the late-1800s. Remnants of historic mining camps display their telltale goods: thick turquoise glass jug bottoms, fused and rusted bean cans, tobacco tins, and crumbling foundations.

The ascent into the Pinals is both hair-raisingly steep and utterly, unspeakably beautiful. A true sky island, the highest point at Pinal Peak is a 7, 848-foot Pre-Cambrian summit framed by the communities of Globe and the San Carlos reservation to the east, the Gila River floodplain to the south, and the Sonoran Desert to the west and north. Beginning with the high Sonoran and Chihuahuan mix of Parry’s agave (century plants) and the occasional saguaro at the lowest reaches, the terrain soon changes to an interior Chaparral community of scrub oak, manzanita, and alligator juniper. By 5,000 feet, you enter the cool embrace of a Ponderosa pine forest – a welcome relief! The visual change is dramatic, but even more dramatic: the temperature variance. If it is 100 degrees in Globe, which sits at 3,500 feet, it can be an amazingly cool 68 degrees at the higher points of this range.

Ridges and desert for miles

Ridges for miles – photo by A. Sato

Beyond the history of these slopes, what has always appealed to me, desert dweller that I have become, is its eclectic terrain in such close proximity to Phoenix. A short 1.45 hours (when one considers the amount of suburban sprawl that must be negotiated in order to break free) to the upper level campgrounds, and I am able to breathe again. I stroll amongst bracken, goldenrod, and bluedicks along cattle trails that meander their way through high ground meadows. Moss and lichen decorate the aspens and pines on the northeastern slopes as turkey vultures and an assortment of ravens and hawks hang out in the cool evening winds.

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod - photo by A. Sato

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod – photo by A. Sato

On one particular July morning, I ascended the mountain and found myself utterly alone! I cannot describe the blissful state I enter when I find that I am the only human in a wild place. The cacophony of my urban surroundings was far below the gorgeous slopes and melodic calls of winged friends.  The usual weekend recreationists had not made their way in with ATVs, generators, and guns. Even the peaceful bird watchers who come to this range seeking a glimpse of the rare Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush were absent. The only audible sounds came from the occasional birdsong and the slight breeze that dipped through the oak branches and carried a sweet smell of unknown foliage.

Along the road, verdins jumped in and out of juniper trees and dove beyond the steep drop-offs that fell hundreds of feet onto rocky ledges. As I walked into a dense pine grove, two white-tailed deer – drinking from moisture-filled tinajas – looked up and quickly jumped vertically into the sky and above the granite boulders that hug the creek.
Beyond the trees, the watercolor world of hot sand radiated as one might imagine a distorted photograph kept in a damp attic. From the trees, I feel like a soft traitor – an escape artist capable of flying away from my home at speeds and in manners no other desert dwelling creature has the luxury of doing. I imagined the Collared Peccaries (javelinas) napping in cool wash beds, coyotes flicking off bugs and seeking shade before the midday sun makes a white, hard light of everything.

Aspen groves

Aspen grove – photo by A. Sato

This is the place of the interloper. I know I am not unlike the first foreigner to wander here, hoping for salvation in the form of gold or game or, in my case, respite. This is the land of mule and white-tailed deer and with them, North American cougars. The Forest Service doesn’t know exactly how many mountain lions reside in this range, but they allow a certain number of kills each year. Last year, 8 lions were taken. My one and only encounter (thus far) with a mountain lion occurred just ¼ mile below the Lower Pinal Campground. It happened precisely on the day of my solitude and was uncanny in its luck. I had just witnessed a juvenile bobcat sitting along the forest road, which I had mistaken for a lost dog – and from my jeep, it looked like a dog until it turned and leapt up the slope and into the thick undercover. Dumbfounded by the rare sighting, I slowed down and gazed up into the canopy in awe.

The late day sun was starting to sink and my camp was established, so I decided to take a short hike before making dinner. As I wound my way around a small, overgrown trail, I saw a blaze of yellow descend through the Gambel oak and manzanita. For a moment, I was frozen – truly, that heart-pounding catatonia that typifies such an encounter is accurate because I could not move. I had to process in my frontal lobe what my reptile brain knew: large predator. A short distance later and I saw a mule deer leg. I couldn’t refute my experience at that point; I knew what I had encountered. Needless to say, I quickly retraced my steps and scrambled back to my campsite.

Blue dusk

Blue dusk – photo by A. Sato

That evening, a series of blood curdling screams filled the canyon near my tent. It was early yet and I had every reason to simply pack up and leave, but something compelled me to stay and listen… again, the screams. I can only describe the sound of big cats mating as something my imagination would conjure into a pterodactyl. I turned off my lantern and listened until the sounds stopped and the night was once again silent.

It’s hard to describe with any accuracy the feeling of hearing such an unnerving yet powerful call. But I continued to ponder this, my place in the wild, my safety or lack thereof, and the amazement I felt at listening to a song I never imagined hearing.

Wild beauty - free image via Morguefile

Wild beauty – free image via Morguefile

Always a poetic child and adult, I have written many love letters over the years. Now I find myself writing the narratives of place with the same deep-feeling gratitude and infatuation. The Pinal Mountains have charmed me with their lion magic, rare bird sightings, and unusual flora. Not a wilderness or intensely protected area, my devotion to them grows with each visit because they do not have some of the protections found in areas far more inaccessible. I grow ever-more protective of the range when I see beer cans litter her soft floor or spray paint blotched on granite boulders and pines that house numerous plant and animal species.

If place makes us, I want to be partially comprised of these mountains and canyons of which I make my temporary home. As much as I care for this place, it will take a lifetime for me to scratch the surface of its story or to be accepted into its fold.  The night with the lion, I will always remember with my full senses. Whatever it was, serendipity or fate, I had been gifted with the sights and sounds of a most gracious, graceful, and elusive host. It is her mountain, after all. I am just a visitor.

Staying Home: Cultivating place-based intimacy and awareness

Sierra Ancha Mountains

Sierra Ancha Mountains

“You can’t know who you are
until you know where you are.”
~ Wendell Berry


Hells Canyon Wilderness

In a culture of immediacy and movement, we grow up believing in the value of relocation, mobility, and change. Very few of us can say we remain in the town of our birth. Many of us can even attest to living in more cities and towns than we can count on our fingers.

Likewise, for those of us who call ourselves naturalists and adventurers, the idea of roaming the world is appealing. Exploring unknown regions and adding thumbtacks to the “places we’ve been” map becomes something of a passion, if not a genuine lifelong pursuit. I have traversed the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Mexico, in search of new experiences, the perfect vista, the unknown cave or the ideal hot spring. While exploration and curiosity contribute to a sincere interest in the environment, I question whether our jet-setting culture helps or hinders an appreciation for the natural world.

Some might argue that through intimacy a greater sense of responsibility is borne, both to the land and our neighbors. I wonder, too, if remaining faithful to place encourages depth of knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna and other bioregional characteristics. Ask most individuals the names of local mountains, canyons or forests and you will frequently get a puzzled shrug. Our lives are spent funneled from home to office, suburb to inner city. Rarely do we question what lies beyond the town’s edge, over the next ridge or in the forests behind the neighborhood boundary.

As Amanda Hooyhaas suggested in her academic work,  The Study of Placelessness: Toward a Conceptual Framework,  “Perhaps all we need to become placed in this chaotic world is to pause and breathe, though the paces of our countries, societies, and cultures attempt to dictate otherwise. Society offers little time for such necessities as place and demands like climbing the corporate ladder continue to urge us forward in a march towards placelessness.”

Is it possible to shift from this placeness way of living to embracing a place as we might  a loved one or a career?

Pinal Mountains

Pinal Mountains

Spanning the works of Yi-Fu Tuan and Gaston Bachelard to Wendell Berry and Jane Jacobs, we have come to appreciate the importance of place in urban planning and community development. Great strides have been made in retaining historic relevance, cultural influence, and green spaces in cities. But what of those spaces just beyond the areas we consider home – the landscapes that are being impacted by the pursuit of bedroom communities, OHV recreation, new freeways or solar tracks? Is it possible to re-frame our discernment of place-based intimacy and home to include areas not occupied or used by man, but paramount in their wildness and solitude?

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Over the past few years, I have felt an ever-growing need to establish a bond to the land that is wild and undisturbed. Perhaps it is reminiscent of my childhood tendency to roam beyond the boundaries of our family farm in defiance of property lines and No Trespassing signs. Perhaps it resonates from the emails my siblings send, regaling details about their organic gardens and camp-outs in yards they’ve tended since graduating from high school or college. They have stayed faithful to what – for them – has become irrevocably home. Ask any one of them, or their dutifully rooted neighbors, about the local terrain or wildlife and they will often not only have an answer but also several anecdotal accounts. This connection to the land on which one dwells is easy to understand. However, it is my hope to feel such a sense of commitment to land that is public; to places I have no monetary or personal gain other than the joy of experiencing its beauty momentarily.

I have lived within an eclectic assortment of wonder-rich ecosystems – from the Canadian Shield’s granite, lake, and conifer terrains, to the hilly hardwood forests of Southern Indiana, to my current home in the watercolor landscape of the Sonoran desert. It was once my aspiration to live in as many ecosystems as possible – to be on the move, ever absorbing more information about the earth. There is still a wanderlust that prompts me to get out and walk across the bajadas and playas of the desert, but now I find myself hungry for detail about this land in particular. That old sense of curiosity that compelled more travel now commands more clarity. I want to understand this place as I might understand my closest friend.

Hells Canyon Wilderness

Hells Canyon Wilderness

On December 31st, I made my usual list of resolutions as well as a separate list of aspirations for the year ahead. This year my aspirations list was short: to choose three public lands within a 100 miles radius of Phoenix and really get to know them. The three natural areas I selected are Hells Canyon Wilderness, a Bureau of Land Management designated wilderness area northwest of Phoenix, the Sierra Ancha Wilderness where Edward Abbey once worked as a Forest Service ranger in a fire lookout, and the Pinal Mountains Recreation Area near Globe, Arizona, a birders’ paradise.

Pinal Mountains - Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

Pinal Mountains – Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

Over the coming months, I mean to develop deeper knowledge of the unique characteristics of these special places as well as an awareness of outside threats (invasive species, recreational impacts, etc..), legislative changes affecting their management, and opportunities for habitat rehabilitation and monitoring.  Likewise, I will write extensively about the native plants, wildlife, geology, and cultural resources of these wild lands.

I believe no matter where we live, there is an opportunity to learn about the ground beneath our feet. There is a need for place-based intimacy and sharing information, stories, and impressions of our native lands. By doing this, we encourage a more meaningful connection to place – an understanding beyond ownership or financial value. It is my hope to create a true relationship with these nearby mountains, deserts, and canyons, to feel at home in the unnamed, uninhabited spaces. Home is the place you know intimately, after all, and what you know you grow to love.


Aleah Sato

Please welcome Aleah Sato to The Ecotone Exchange. Sato is a nonprofit professional and creative writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary and environmental journals. She is a wilderness volunteer for the Tonto National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management in her Southwestern home of Arizona. As a wildlands volunteer she assists with wilderness trail work, habitat rehabilitation, water quality sampling, and wildlife monitoring. She is a frequent contributor to Plant Healer, SageWoman and other earth- and plant-based journals and maintains her own blog, Jane Crow Journal (